Nature magazine, one of the premier science journals, carried a startling news story last week about a study charting the precipitous decline of “disruptive” scientific research, concluding that this decline is also reducing technological innovation. Using typically advanced quantitative techniques of a massive data set, the full study reports a more than 90 percent decline in “disruptive” scientific findings across nearly all fields over the last 70 years. One of the authors of the study told Nature, “The data suggest something is changing. You don’t have quite the same intensity of breakthrough discoveries you once had.” The chart Nature produced for the story is striking:
Perhaps the most startling aspect of the story is the sub-headline Nature used: “No One Knows Why.” The best the authors can do is the feeble theory that “larger research teams” hinder heterodox investigations.
This finding is ominous, and may help explain the slowing pace of technological innovation, as summarized in Peter Thiel’s famous comment that “we were promised flying cars, but only got 140 characters.” As anyone who follows the holy grail of “innovation” knows, disruption is a prime precursor of progress, highly prized in Silicon Valley as it is in academia. Even before the jargon of “disruption” and “innovation” took over our popular vocabulary, the idea that science progresses by fundamental “paradigm shifts”—or breakthrough discoveries that challenge or overturn the existing consensus—has been widely accepted ever since Thomas Kuhn’s classic explanation in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Nature avoids the most significant and obvious explanation with the myopia of Inspector Clouseau, which is the deadly confluence of ideology and the increasingly narrow conformism of academic specialties. Perhaps this is grasped even more simply by noting the authoritarian attitude expressed in the now-ubiquitous phrase, “The Science,” with the tacit assumption being that science is fully “settled” and that the “consensus” science is unassailable. The epitome of this anti-scientific presumption was best expressed by Dr. Anthony Fauci, who declared during the Covid pandemic that “I represent science,” implying an infallibility previously reserved only for popes.
It is hardly news that dissenting from the “consensus” position of the increasingly left-leaning scientific establishment in academic or government is dangerous to your career and reputation. It is sometimes thought that the “hard” sciences such as physics and chemistry are largely immune for the leftist tide that have destroyed the social sciences and the humanities in our universities, but this is less and less true with every passing year.
Back in 2004, the renowned Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin wrote in the New York Review of Books that “Most scientists are, at a minimum, liberals, although it is by no means obvious why this should be so,” and MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanuel, very much in the so-called “consensus” of climate science, was honest enough to lament “the shocking lack of political diversity among American academics, who suffer from the kind of group-think that develops in cloistered cultures. Until this profound and well-documented intellectual homogeneity changes, scientists will be suspected of constituting a leftist think tank.”
Our disgraceful news media is only too happy to act as a megaphone against any person who challenges the party line. Witness Dr. Scott Atlas, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, or any of the other eminent medical experts who dissented from the party line over Covid policy, who were hounded relentlessly (including death threats that required police protection), even though their criticisms have been fully vindicated.
A statement from @ABridgen #AndrewBridgen pic.twitter.com/Aa1PLqJVtp
— The Reclaim Party (@thereclaimparty) January 12, 2023
This kind of enforced conformity has been building for a while. A decade ago Dr. James Enstrom, an epidemiologist at UCLA’s School of Public Health, was summarily fired after 36 years on the faculty after he disputed the shoddy science behind some of California’s air pollution regulations. In climate science, the groupthink and demonization of dissenting views is so severe that even tenured scientists dare not challenge the climate dogma directly, for one thing because no leading science journal will publish any findings that go against “The Science,” because it is “settled.” Any young researcher who dissents will likely be denied tenure, and a politician such as British MP Andrew Bridgen (above), can get suspended from his party for daring to challenge the orthodoxy.
The tiny number of graduate students in the social sciences who might be interested in researching racial questions that dissent from the “anti-racist” party line of the moment are strongly discouraged from doing to, and often can’t find a faculty adviser for such work.
So suppose you are a young—and untenured—faculty in a science department at a university or government agency. What is the best career path forward? It lies in producing small, incremental work that builds within the boundaries of the existing “consensus.” Boldness and unconventional thinking is not only unlikely to be rewarded, but will likely be a hindrance to your career advancement.
The United States is already paying a high price for what even the left-leaning scholar Cass Sunstein calls “the dominance of conformity,” and it appears the problem is only getting worse.
An awful lot of actual science progresses when someone is thinking about something, or analyzing data and says to herself, “that’s funny.” The follow-up to that thought is where the new is often found.
Yes, we are living in a conformist era, and yes, academia has been captured by authoritarians, and yes, government and activist influence have led to politicisation. But, still, be careful: I would expect a priori that the number of disruptive insights will decrease over time just because at least *some* previous papers genuinely are the last word on a topic.
Such conformity is obviously a problem but I think you do not pay enough attention to the role of government in creating and enforcing it. After all, the many doctors and researchers to instantly supported everything Fauci said were motivated to some degree by his control over their reserach grants. I would suggest that while intellectual conformity is surely an issue, the element of compulsion and threat is at least as great.
At the entrance to my alma mater, Bronx High School of Science, stands a massive mural portraying numerous "paradigm shifters", some of whom were "canceled" back in their day. Plus ca change and all that, but this time I can't be sure that such innovators will prevail in the future.
Nature Magazine is an enthusiastic participant in the suppression of dissent from the official scientific orthodox narrative.
All "scientific" publications are now slavish adherents of The Science.
Climate "science" is a perfect example of how government funding of science produces a corrupt conformity. The inevitable goal of government agencies is to achieve more funding and power. This has to be justified by claiming that there are dangerous problems which are a high priority to solve, so they pay huge amounts to the scientific establishment to provide that justification, regardless of the facts. Any scientist who wants to remain employed is forced to support the narrative, and those who fear for their jobs will attack anyone who disagrees. The agencies also fund captive industries which exist to "solve" these conjured up problems, which in turn recycle a portion of their profits to the politicians which support increased funding for the agencies. In this way, agencies can interfere in the political process using enormous tax funded resources. This is an almost unbreakable ring of corruption, in which all the insiders win at the expense of everyone else.
I hear over and over again from geo-strategist types that the US's only hope of keeping up with the Chinese is by beating them at innovation. Woke science is killing our global competitiveness among other things.
The holy grail in research is an RO1 grant from the NIH. The average age for the first RO1 award is 44. Essentially, scientists spend half their career pursuing their first major grant. Tt's not surprising that a middle-aged person has fewer innovative ideas than a younger person, is more inclined to pursue a line of research that has a higher chance of getting a grant, and less likely to take a flyer on an idea that may end their career before it starts.
You all can follow the SCIENCE if you wish. I’ll follow the money instead.
Well, I'd be careful with this, the main author of that study, guy named Funk, has been pushing this story for years. Note that Silicon Valley likes "disruption" not because that's how science works, but that's how markets work. Different thing entirely. Science virtually never works by disruption, and even when a disruption shows up, like relativity or quantum physics, it takes generational time to occur, that's pure Thomas Kuhn. The academy requires publications, not quality, and certainly not disruption. You want disruption rob a bank, that's disruption, it's not a social policy to be advocated.
All such trends began with widespread government central planning and the adoption of the modern social welfare state. Read Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.